McLuhan Studies : Premiere Issue

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Except for a small group of poetry lovers and professional Italianists, the surname Bertolucci is today linked to Bernardo, the film director, and not to Attilio, his father, the poet. This state of affairs has little to do with talent; instead it has a lot to do with the different media through which father and son express themselves (T. O'Neill 133). There are few readers (especially of poetry) and many film-goers. (There are even more watchers of television.) Because of this, Italy's cultural image abroad has been fashioned more by its cinema than by its literature. Post-war Italian cinema has been acclaimed critically and has achieved a good measure of commercial success abroad. It has also been very influential in the evolution of the medium itself. The films of Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, Pasolini, Antonioni, Fellini, and Bertolucci are not only seen abroad, but also studied. The impact of Italian cinema abroad is an important subject which merits separate treatment. Here I shall limit myself to a small portion of that vast topic, namely, how the translation of an Italian literary text (old or new) from print into film (or video) affects the diffusion of that text as well as others by the same author.

a. Cinema: Literature in the Reel World

Most Italian literary texts adapted for the screen have been Italian productions, and the great majority of these were never distributed outside Italy. Those that were were usually released with subtitles, thus automatically limiting the potential audience to a "reading" public. Most countries do not have the same passion as Italy for dubbing foreign films, an activity which has become a veritable industry in Italy. Some, like Vittorio De Sica's Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) based on Luigi Bartolini's 1946 novel of the same title, managed to overcome this obstacle. The film won rave reviews and the Academy Award for the best foreign film that year, and soon came to be considered a classic of Italian Neo-Realist cinema. Artistically, the film overshadows the novel, and has effectively replaced it as a point of reference. Nonetheless, it produced what we might call the "rebound effect": it led to the translation into English of the novel in 1952. Since then, the novel has been republished twice (1964 and 1972). None of Bartolini's other works has been translated into English and it is very unlikely Ladri di biciclette would have been, had it not been for the film.

The practice of co-producing what amounts essentially to an Italian film (with an Italian script, director, and cast) with one or more foreign countries has guaranteed these films (and the texts on which they are based) a larger audience. However, in order for a film to make it big, it must penetrate the large and lucrative American market. Two movies adapted from novels by Moravia have followed this itinerary and have met with success. The first is La Ciociara (Two Women, 1960), an Italian-French co-production, also directed by Vittorio De Sica. This film won Sophia Loren an Academy Award and turned her into an international star. The other is Il conformista (The Conformist, 1969), an Italian-French-West German co-production, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. It should be noted that in both these cases the novels had already been translated into English, The Conformist as early as 1952, Two Women in 1958. However, the movies provoked renewed interest in the novels. Penguin republished The Conformist shortly before the appearance of the movie (1968) and Two Women shortly after the film's release (1961). Since then, they have been republished several times; and the movies without doubt contributed to Moravia's popularity in America, thus helping to boost the sales of his other novels.

An Italian-West German co-production, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970), adapted from Giorgio Bassani's novel and directed once again by Vittorio De Sica, followed a similar pattern. The novel had been translated in 1965 but was republished by Penguin in 1969 in anticipation of the film's release. It has since been re-issued several times. However, this film is of interest to us primarily because of the polemic it provoked, a polemic which brings into focus several issues which are relevant to the topic at hand. First, a film based on a literary text is a separate and distinct aesthetic object, identified more with the film's director and stars than with the author of the text at its origin. Moreover, in the translation-transcodification-from print into celluloid, several compromises dictated by the radically different nature of the two media are necessary. It was these compromises that Bassani was unwilling to accept; he objected to changes to the script on which he himself had worked, and ultimately withdrew his name from the list of writing credits. Ugo Pirro was brought in to revise the script, which was nominated for but did not win an Academy Award (Il cinema italiano d'oggi 101-2).

What is at stake here is more than the issue of philological precision; it is the degree to which the writer-intellectual is willing to accept the risks of involvement in mass culture. Moravia, as a writer and intellectual, was always ready to compromise and openly embraced mass culture. This stance and attitude guaranteed him popular success. In terms of Eco's celebrated (if somewhat elusive) distinction in Apocalittici e integrati, Moravia's position approaches that of the "integrated" intellectual; he is willing to accept mass culture, if not to celebrate it. On the other hand, although Bassani is far from being an "apocalyptic" intellectual - one who abhors and shuns mass culture - he is, nonetheless, much more hesitant about it and sensitive to how it can appropriate and transform one's work.

The dilemma is not insoluble; there is another path to follow. Pasolini took this route: he realized both the great potential film had to transmit cultural values and the risks involved in having someone else translate your vision, so from a poet and novelist he became a filmmaker. He wrote and directed his own films: the scripts he prepared from scratch or adapted from his own work (e.g. Teorema) or that of others, among them Boccaccio and Chaucer. To be sure, his Decameron (1971), which uses the Ciappelletto (1.1) and Giotto (6.5) stories to frame a selection of Boccaccio's tales, has as much to do with Boccaccio (but for radically different reasons) as Boccaccio '70. The latter is a 1962 film anthology directed by Fellini, Visconti, De Sica, and Monicelli. It includes four modern stories which Boccaccio might have written, on an off day. Nonetheless, the film was immensely successful abroad, in part because of the Boccaccio connection established by the title. The same may be said of Pasolini's Decameron, although by 1971 Pasolini had already established his reputation abroad as a prominent filmmaker, if not a writer. His relatively small but dedicated Anglo-American public was already familiar with Accattone (1960), his first feature film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), and Teorema (1968). His Una vita violenta (1959) was only translated in 1968 on the heels of his success as a filmmaker. Subsequently, several of his other literary works, including Ragazzi di vita (1955), were translated. The present intense interest in Pasolini in the Anglo-American world is due to a number of factors: his sexual orientation (the rise of gay studies); his Marxist political stance; his tragic death (which contributed to defining his public persona as an outspoken outcast); his production as a filmmaker. All of these factors, but especially the last, have led to a rediscovery, or better discovery, abroad of Pasolini the writer (Rumble and Testa, Gatt-Rutter).

Italian literature has not been a magnet for Hollywood. However, there are a few examples, some happy, others not so happy, of Italian literary texts turned into Hollywood movies. One is the 1963 United States-Italy co-production of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), directed by Luchino Visconti. A shortened, dubbed version in Cinemascope and Deluxe Colour of poor standard was released in the United States by Twentieth Century Fox. It bore little resemblance to the unabridged Italian version, executed with great care and attention to detail by Visconti. Yet the presence of Burt Lancaster in the lead role of Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, assured the movie a measure of commercial success; it also assured Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa's novel (1958), first translated in 1960, reissued in 1963 to coincide with the film's release and several times since then, an English public.

Another example of Hollywood's infrequent forays into contemporary Italian literature is Twentieth Century Fox's production of Eco's The Name of the Rose, directed by the French Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring the Englishman Sean Connery, a truly international effort, worthy of a book translated into dozens of languages. Yet in this case too the results were not completely happy. The film received mixed reviews, the reactions ranging from "a rich and beautiful film" and "visually impeccable and royally entertaining" to "a plodding misfire . . . sorrowfully mediocre". Moreover, it was negatively compared to the book: "The rich, complex text of The Name of the Rose has been profaned by the order of the crude brothers of Hollywood" (O'Toole). Despite its lukewarm reception, the film did pretty well commercially, in part because of Sean Connery's strong performance in the role of the wily monk-sleuth William of Baskerville. But the film's relative commercial success was mostly driven by the book's overwhelming success, about ten million copies sold world-wide to date. Here is an example where the "rebound effect" is reversed. The book sold the film, created a climate of expectation for its appearance and an audience to receive it. In the credits the film is defined as a palimpsest of the book. It is, and as such it is not a bad effort.

Italy's classic authors have not been entirely neglected by Hollywood. The 1945 Universal Pictures This Love of Ours was loosely based on Pirandello's Come prima, meglio di prima (1920); it was remade ten years later as Never Say Goodbye. Neither picture distinguished itself, nor enhanced Pirandello's reputation, which, in any case, did not need enhancing. His continuing presence abroad is on the stage, not on the screen. Ever since Milano-Film's acclaimed 1909 production of the Inferno, directed by Giuseppe De Liguoro, made its way across the Atlantic, Hollywood has been fascinated by Dante. Dantesque allusions and imagery abound in American movies, but no serious attempt has been made to transform Dante's poem into a feature-length movie. Despite recent technological advances, the cost of the special effects required to make a blockbuster à la Spielberg is still prohibitive. In any case, the episodic nature and textual characteristics of the Commedia make it more suitable for television than for the movies. On this subject, more in a moment. Nonetheless, there exists a Hollywood movie entitled Dante's Inferno. Made in 1935 by Twentieth Century Fox, it stars Spencer Tracy as a ruthless carnival owner who has a vision of hell. The ten minute inferno sequence, in which hell is reconstructed using drawings from Gustave Doré, is one of the most extraordinary and imaginative pieces of cinema in Hollywood's history.

b. Television: Literature in the Hands of the Timid Giant

In Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan subtitled the chapter on movies "The Reel World," recalling Joyce's pun on "reel" and "real". The chapter on television he called "The Timid Giant", because he felt that the medium had yet to unleash its power. Over the years the timid giant has appropriated both the "reel" and the "real" worlds. Even when a film is not financed, in part or in whole, by television - a common practice these days - and shown first on the small screen, it will eventually wind up there. This gives the picture a second life - the literary text on which it is based a third life, if it is a literary movie - and a potentially vast audience. But there is a price to be paid. That price is the subject of Maurizio Nichetti's Ladri di saponette (1989), The Icicle Thief in America, where it has triumphed. Imagine Ladri di biciclette on television with commercials. That, in essence, is the plot of The Icicle Thief, except that in Nichetti's film the two worlds - that of the story (a "remake" of De Sica's classic, lovingly shot in sepia-toned black and white) and that of the commercials in brilliant colour - become hopelessly intertwined. All of this horrifies the director, who is in a television studio being interviewed. Finally, the director (played by Nichetti himself) must jump into his movie in a manner reminiscent of Pirandello in order to set it back on track. From time to time the movie takes us into a typical Italian home where the family seems to be more interested in the commercials than in the film, and is largely oblivious to the electronic mix-up. Nichetti's film is a devastating but entertaining parody of the way film is treated by television and the typical TV viewer. Billed "as the first film that interrupts commercials," it was ironically itself funded by Italian television. The timid giant has nothing to fear, so powerful is his hold on the viewer.

At first glance, commercial television does not seem to be an auspicious forum for serious cinema or literature. Ironically, unimaginative educational television can be equally inhospitable to literature. I am thinking in particular of the one-hundred part series on Dante's Commedia, produced by the Dipartimento Scuola Educazione of RAI TV, and shown on Channel Three in 1988. The project was conceived in 1984. At the time there was a struggle within the RAI corporation between those who wanted to produce a high-budget blockbuster on the Inferno along the lines of Giuliano Montaldo's recent successful adaptation of Marco Polo's Milione and those who wanted to do something more academic. Unfortunately, the latter group prevailed. I say unfortunately because now we have been deprived of an epic on the Inferno which might have been interesting. Instead we have gained a televised lectura Dantis which is neither interesting nor particularly useful.

The production is sensitive neither to the language of television nor to the telepotential language of Dante's Commedia. Dante's poem is neither writerly nor readerly, to use Barthes' terminology in S/Z. Rather it is more like what Fiske, in Television Culture, calls a "producerly" text. A producerly text is polysemous and combines the easy accessibility of the readerly with the complex discursive strategies of the writerly. These peculiar textual qualities allow the poem to produce meaning and pleasure in audiences which range from the uneducated to the most sophisticated and discerning. Add to this its episodic nature, and Dante's Commedia was made for television. RAI missed a great opportunity. It is very unlikely that these programs will ever circulate much outside Italy, either in a commercial or an educational setting.

Fortunately, Dante produces television abroad too. The Media Centre at the University of Toronto is making a series called Dante's Divine Comedy: A Televisual Commentary. (I am personally involved in this project.) So far two programs - one on Francesca, the other on Ulysses - have been completed; more are on the way. Intended for an undergraduate student audience, these programs reconstruct televisually the iconography of damnation and salvation, which the poem would have evoked in the minds of his contemporaries. They do so using manuscript illuminations and various other visual sources, all of which belong to Dante and his original public's cultural patrimony and memory. Designed to complement not replace the text, these programs have found a market in American colleges and universities.

By far the most ambitious project to translate Dante from print into video is A TV Dante, produced by Channel Four Television in Britain. It will eventually consist of 34 episodes, one on each canto of the Inferno. So far the first eight episodes have been completed. The programs are directed by Tom Phillips and Peter Greenaway. Tom Phillips is a well known experimental artist, novelist, and maker of books. In 1983 he translated and illustrated the Inferno. Peter Greenaway, of course, is one of the foremost contemporary intellectual and experimental filmmakers. He has written and directed several films, most recently The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, which is full of Dantesque allusions, and Prospero's Books.

In different ways, the RAI and the University of Toronto programs are philological in nature, driven by a desire to explicate the poem. Phillips and Greenaway take the opposite approach and attempt to make the past contemporary (Iannucci, "Dante Produces Television"). Clearly, their response to Dante is creative and this is explicitly stated from the very beginning. "The good old text always is a blank for new things," says Tom Phillips, who appears on screen at the start. Nonetheless, their videos remain bound to Dante's text, which defines the terrain within which meaning may be made. They skilfully use Dante's text to experiment, at times parodically, with the "linguistic" conventions of the medium. The result is an entertaining, postmodern collage of televisual styles, an exercise which is not dissimilar in spirit to Dante's conscious mixing of styles or plurilinguism in the Commedia. A TV Dante was awarded first prize at the Montreal International Film and Video Festival for the best experimental video of 1990.

Between the butchered films on commercial television and the insipid documentaries which characterize a great deal of educational television programming, there is a middle ground where literature can thrive on television. The British have found that ground, and here I am referring not only to the splendid (but not flawless) A TV Dante, but also to the BBC's serialized representation of such literary works as Brideshead Revisited. Less spectacular than RAI's Marco Polo, which had huge American backing and was filmed in English, the BBC's serializations are perhaps more respectful of the literary origin of the material and more suitable to the structural preferences and the coolness of the medium. (Television is at its best in the serial form; film is not an ideal unit for television.) Nonetheless, RAI's eight-part mini-series on Marco Polo was an international success and had the effect of reproposing the Venetian's text, which has long fascinated both East and West. Old translations of the work were re-issued and new ones made, including one in modern Italian by Maria Bellonci for ERI, complete with colour photographs from the television extravaganza (1982). Two years later Bellonci's modern Italian text was translated into English as The Travels of Marco Polo. That same year Gary Jennings' huge historical novel, The Journeyer, appeared. In it, the elderly Polo completes his earlier account in a series of letters to Rustichello Da Pisa. With the exception of Marco Polo, Italian television has done little to transmit and promote its literary heritage abroad, nor has it distinguished itself on the stage of the global village.

In conclusion, the transcodification of Italian literary texts from print into film or video generally provides these texts (albeit altered) with a different and wider public. As popular media, cinema and television reach an audience composed of many people who would not normally read these works either in the original Italian or in translation. However, their passage from one medium into another radically transforms them. They become something else, as Bassani soon realized and tried, in vain, to reverse. In the case of television the transformation is especially dramatic since the shift is from the archetypical literate mode of communication (print) to an oral mode, even if, as Walter Ong points out in Orality and Literacy, the "secondary orality"of our electronic environment is in many respects different from the traditional kind in that it is based and depends heavily on literacy (136). There is a price to pay for a bigger, mass audience. But literary works turned into movies or television series also gain more readers, through what I have called the "rebound effect." These works are usually republished or translated (if a translation does not already exist), and hence become more accessible. Wider diffusion does not, of course, assure continuing popular and/or critical success. Ladri di biciclette is a good example of this: as I noted, the film has supplanted the novel as the cultural point of reference. The ultimate impact and influence of a literary work (Italian or otherwise) depend on its textual characteristics, on its ability to continue to produce meaning and pleasure. Its translation into another language or medium may give that work a boost but it is no sure sign of textual staying power.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1970.

Il cinema italiano d'oggi 1970-1984. Eds. Franca Faldini and Goffredo Fofi. Milano: Mondadori, 1984.

"Dante's Ulysses and the Homeric Tradition. Inferno 26." Video. Written by Amilcare A. Iannucci. Directed by Michael Edmunds. University of Toronto Media Centre. Toronto, 1985.

La Divina Commedia. 100 Part Television Series. Directed by Marco Parodi. Academic Co-ordinator Giorgio Petrocchi. Dipartimento Scuola Educazione. RAI TV. Italy, 1988.

Eco, Umberto. Apocalittici e integrati. Milano: Bompiani, 1964.

Fiske, John. Television Culture. London and New York: Methuen, 1987.

Gatt-Rutter, John. "Pier Paolo Pasolini."Writers and Society in Contemporary Italy. Leamington Spa, Warwickshire: Berg Publishers, 1984. 143-65.

Iannucci, Amilcare A. "Dante Produces Television." Lectura Dantis 13 (1993): 32-46.

Marco Polo. Television Mini-Series. Directed by Giuliano Montaldo. RAI TV. Italy, 1982.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen, 1984.

O'Toole, Lawrence. Review of The Name of the Rose, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. McLean's (October 6, 1986): 79.

Rumble, Patrick and Bart Testa, eds. Pier Paolo Pasolini: Contemporary Perspectives. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1994. 3-13.

A TV Dante. Inferno 1-8. Video. Directed by Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips. Channel Four Television LTD. London, 1984-89.

"Vulcan's Net: Passion and Punishment. Inferno 5." Video. Written by Amilcare A. Iannucci. Directed by Michael Edmunds. University of Toronto Media Centre. Toronto, 1987.

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